You don´t have too many chances to be sailing with one of the best of their class. You really don´t get too many of them. The more I was thrilled when a text message from Martin Menzer reached me: “Want to experience real sailing? Last chance this season – come aboard our J80 and we cast off!” That was an invitation I of course couldn´t refuse and so I drove down an hour for the City of Kiel, or called “Sailing City” to meet Martin and his crew man, bosun and trimmer, Mika.
As I walked down the pontoon, most of the yachts had been out of the water and winterized as the season of 2018 was really coming to an end, but Martin and his neighbour remained in the water: It has been such a great summer and still, being end of October we´ve had a nice, 12 degrees Celsius warm late-summer´s day. Perfect conditions! I began to feel happy. And it would turn out to be a lot more happy later on.
Martin Menzner is a one-of-a-kind person whom I got to know last year when I saw an aluminium yacht at a crane out of my office window, grabbed my camera and ran down. You all know about my passion for aluminium yacht. And there she was, a 43 feet beauty and Martin was inspecting her keel. As it turned out after I approached him, mistaking him for the owner, he was the designer of this boat. Martin Menzner is the brain behind the much admired Berckemeyer.
But the more I learned about his marvellous Berckemeyer-yachts the more I learned that Martin was much more than “just” a naval architect. As it turned out, he is a sailing buff, a true Champion and much feared regatta-ace in the J80-community. As on big German yachting magazine once called him: “There is no way past Martin Menzner”. And of course his boat, the famous J80 PIKE, which I was about to board. “Welcome, Lars, make yourself comfortable. We are just rigging the boat and the we´re off”, he greets me, as well as Mika, the co-owner and trimmer of PIKE.
PIKE and her 4-men crew had been winning the Kiel Week in their class for eleven times, of which this year the ninth time in succession! 2017 they had won the German Open. J80 PIKE was and still is the benchmark in regatta sailing when it comes to the J80 one-design class. As Martin reveals, they hate travelling, most of all, putting the boat on a trailer. I am sure, if this wouldn´t be the case, PIKE and her crew would be stirring up European J80 races as well for sure.
A review in short: The J80 sailboat
Martin Menzner is used to designing real heavy duty yachts made of aluminium, fast, sleek and beautiful performance yachts up to 70 feet. One of his latest works, the BM49 Pilot House has been visited by myself two times up to now and I was a bit puzzled seeing him on this relatively small, 26 feet J80: “This, Lars, is real no-frills-sailing! This is a fast, simple and ultra-fun sailboat. It´s just pure sailing. And this is what I love about J80.”
Looking at the boat I credited her crew first of all for having this boat – nearly 15 years of age – in such a perfect shape. The GRP and Gelcoat looked as it was brand new from the yard. The lines all in best shape, same for the rollers and clamps. The clean, open transom just housed the long tiller (for a big leverage) and the pulley for the backstay. Simple. Yet beautiful.
The J80 measures 26 feet over all, which is 8 metres in total. The boat has a max beam of 2.51 metres and a fixed keel with a ballast of 635 kilograms. That´s a ballast-displacement-ratio of draft of 48 per cent, which is roughly double that of a modern production cruiser. Huge stability and pointing ability built in here. The draft of the boat is 1.49 metres.
“Class rules are very strict”, tells me Mika as both were taking off the tarps of the mainsail and attached the luff to the mast: “One design class rules state that we are only allowed to buy one set of sails per year for the races. That’s why we practice – or go out for fun – in older sails from previous years.” Martin amends, that class rules in addition are only allowing Dacron main sails.
What will the day out be like?As both were fitting the sails, connecting the sheets and rigging the Gennaker for being hoisted, I took a quick look to the interior of the boat. Which was pretty roomy, I could probably imagine that two people may find space to stretch out and sleep here, but honestly the boat was practically empty. Not made for a sleepover, just, as Marting mentioned, a piece of sports equipment.
What was indeed springing to my mind on the other hand was the seemingly good building quality of this boat: All joints and lamination-works seemed to have been made by professionals. Again, I was wondering how well kept in good shape this boat was, even inside, even under the floorboards she looked as if she was brand new. Thy love their boat for sure, I thought to myself.
Just 15 minutes after arriving the bowlines were put off and we pulled the boat by the aft lines out of her berth. Mika was hoisting the mainsail and it catched wind immediately. Martin, the skipper, steered the boat through the jetties, we turned 90 degrees to the main canal out of the Schilksee Marina and up the job went. At an instant the boat made speed well and created a nice wave at her bow. And all this without even one word from either of my sailing mates …
Gennaker´s up: A lesson in Sails Trim
Okay, I sat down and readied my camera, as Martin turned to port again, slacked off the sails and turned towards the exit of the Kiel fjord: Open Sea. Martin and Mika didn´t exchanged a word. A well-rehearsed crew that does not need a word. Everybody of them two knows exactly what to do. When Martin later was to change a course, a mere blink with an eye, a simple nod with his head or just single words like: “Off, now?!” and Mika would spring to life and do a tack, a gybe or trim-work on the sails.
No wonder that these people win races, I thought: If you have a crew that acts without any commands or explanation needed, this will save time, increase reaction time and make for huge advantages over others. Suddenly – have I missed another of Martin´s nods? – Mika was standing next to me readying the Gennaker sheets: “Go to the mast, upon my Go, pull the halyard and hoist the sail!” Yes, Sir!
Just some seconds later, the jib was rolled in and I pulled the halyard. Up the white Gennaker went and like it was the simplest thing in the world it unfolded. Mika took his seat next to Martin, his gloves on, and had the Gennaker sheet in his hands, constantly trimming. Like is was nothing, the J80 accelerated ever so gently up to a point when I was pointing to the bow and hurrayed in excitement: “Look how the sail is pulling up the bow out of the water!” Both smiled and nodded.
PIKE was picking up speed. I couldn´t find a wind speed indicator, but there wasn´t much wind at that day, but the boat was taking off immediately. Like a rush the J80 began to ride on her own wave. With every little gusty puff the I felt the boat making a jump forward, as if it wanted to come out of the water. Are we planing? “Not today”, Martin shook his head: “The hull seems to be grown over by algae and stuff, the boat isn´t that fast today.” Not that fast?!
With top speed exceeding 11.6 nots over ground, I couldn´t believe my eyes. This small boat with a max hull speed of … what? … is so effortless gliding and cheating wind? I have seen pictures of Martin racing PIKE and they looked quite rapid, but actually witnessing this small jollyboat making this speed was a true revelation, I must admit. No wonder that Martin´s Berckemeyer designs are winning races too.
But what was looking so effortless and easy was constant work. Martin at the helm was constantly checking wind direction and angle, steering the boat perfectly in the waves which were coming in from astern. Mika as well was highly concentrated on the Gennaker sheet to have this sail generating maximum lift at any time. They again hardly spoke a word, everybody did what was his duty on his station.
Now I understood what Martin meant with “real sailing” and what he was talking about when he spoke of the J80 as a “real sailboat”. There is really no complicated thing about the J80. No gadgets, no fooling around. Just attaching the sails and off you go. No engine, no fuel, no electric stuff. Just a boat for bare sailing. After some minutes and bringing some miles between us and the land both began to relax. Martin even smiled. Now, that was their true element, “short vacation”, as they called it.
I seized the chance and began asking. Up until that day I had only sailed a single time with a Gennaker, which was on the Pogo 40 on our way back from the Island of Heligoland two years ago. During our pretty perfect sailing trip in a 40 ft aluminium performance cruiser my sailing mate and me tried to hoist the Gennaker but failed in doing so because it wouldn´t unfold due to hassle of the lines. So I asked Mika a thousand questions on Gennaker trim. For example, which purpose had the barber hauler and when they would tighten or loosen the line.
“Well, it depends on our point of sail”, Mika explained: “The more we are getting the wind from astern, the more we want the sail to become bulgy. So, sheeting in the barber hauler will generate a kind of pocket in the upper part of the Gennaker.” Same way around the more wind comes in from aside, then the hauler will be slackened to flatten out the sail.
A real no frills sailboat: The J-boat at its best
Both had real fun in driving the boat. Like integral parts of a machine bother were doing their works. In that it seemed that steering, trimming and driving the boat to optimum speeds was so effortless, but in fact we all know how much experience and routine is needed to let it look like it was done without any effort.
“We never put the Gennaker sheet to the winch”, tells me Mika. “We always drive the headsail by hand.” Can imagine this: Reaction time is much quicker and switching between tightening and slacking off the sheet is one single movement. “I constantly sheet in the Gennaker until the luff kills, the I let off some of the sheet … and then it starts all over again.”, says Mika: “When the luff is not killing, the Gennaker is sheeted in too close definitely, so that´s my indicator.” Martin agrees.
Martin on the other hand controls the mainsheet which is on a clamp but he has the line ready to let go the mainsail when a gust hits or take it in closer. His other hand has a firm grip on the stick which moves the tiller. The boat is moving away from the coast fast: Sailing with a Gennaker in these winds makes miles eat away like nothing. We quickly cross the Kiel fjord and pass Marina Wendtorf where I started my last sailing trip, when – unnoticed by me because I missed another nod of Martin – the Gennaker came down in a matter of seconds, we tacked and went upwind again.
The boat heeled nicely and the sun was creating a great effect on the black jib. Although we didn´t had any waves because of the offshore wind that had no fetch at all, the boat was going through the water without any – otherwise so upwind-typical – movements. An almost surreal feeling to have such a stable, fast yet barely moving nor rocking boat.
“Time to go home again”, said Martin after we sailed an hour or so that fast before the wind, now the time to win back the miles by tacking into the fjord. “Where will the J92 be?”, the two men were wondering. Shortly behind us their neighbours had been casting off for a last sailing trip as well. There was a nice little rivalry going on between both: “The owner of that J92 is our premium trimmer when we race PIKE”, said Martin. Understood!
Upwind heading home: This small beast eats miles!
Again, very suddenly, Mika jumps up and climbs over me to the mast where he is for some seconds squinting his eyes taking a sharp look at the foot of the mainsail. Then, with one hand, he loosens a loop and holds on for some seconds, nod to himself and returns to his position.
Well, sailing upwind now there wasn´t really anything to do for him as the job has been trimmed nicely, meaning, sheeted in for close hauled sailing. Martin hold his due course and the boat made between 5.5 and just over 6 knots over ground. Here´s the downside of a small boat, I though to myself: Length runs. And 26 feet isn´t much of a length. Nevertheless, this small boat was making good speed indeed.
Quickly again without a single tack we reached the inner fjord of Kiel approach and the sun was going down. Autumn creates the best of colours, water is still kind of warm from a long summer and most of the other boats are ashore so that´s the best time for sailing. I praised Marting and Mika for having invited me, sat myself next to Mika on the coaming for being living ballast and stared quietly into the sunset.
Later, of course, we chatted again about sailing. About yachts. About racing. More than ever I admired Martin for being such a humble person, not running around with his titles, with him being a well-known and widely respected yacht designer. Such an empathic, friendly, humorous and open person. There was no place in the world I would have been rather that being aboard PIKE at this very moment.
“There they are!”, shouted Mika with excitement and suddenly the vacation-mode ended. With a hellish smile both decided to scramble the J92 and have a little match race back home with her. So we tacked and sailed towards her, criss-crossing the fairway for the large commercial freighters entering Kiel for the Kiel Canal or the harbour. Another quick gybe when we´be had them abeam. “Gennaker ho!”, was the command and I pulled the halyard whereas Mika was taking in the jib. Being on a beam reach now, the boat sprung to life again and gained speed.
The wind was slowly going down with the sun, nevertheless we managed to reach some 8 knots in the course of the events. What I found astonishing was the fact that J80 PIKE was able to not only accelerate faster but to sail away in front of the much bigger J92 with such easiness that we´ve had more than ten boat lengths between us in a matter of minutes!
“Normally we are faster then they on every point of sail”, said Martin, “Except for sailing close hauled.” There we have it again. It got fresher and then colder and it was a good decision to go home for the berth again. Suddenly I felt winter crawling up my legs: As soon as the rays of the sun didn´t reach us anymore, temperaturs dropped immediately. Luckily we reached Kiel-Schilksee, home port of Pike, some minutes later.
The J92 arrived when we had our sails taken off the rigg and the sheets coiled up smoothly. Maybe they haven´t been in the mood for a match race that day. But when they came in, I again admired the easiness of manoeuvering an engine-less boat in harbour. They would have taken down the mainsail and come in slowly driven by jib, Martin and Mika had taken down every of the two sails and were warping in the boat by pushing the boat from pillar to pillar.
Review of the J80 sailboat
Nice, smooth, no noise. Elegant and no frills. When I went off the boat, said Goodbye to Mika, Martin and PIKE I had to think about some stuff when I drove home. For example about the fact that size really does not matter. That even such a small, easy and simple boat like the J80 can generate so much fun, so much excitement and in this is so deeply elegant. I can imagine how deeply influenced Martin may be by his sailing experience in this boat when he is designing the Berckemeyer yachts.
In the end, this really was a perfect sailing day. 5 hours of Gennaker sailing practice, a long day out in the Kiel fjord with one of the best J80 sailors out there: What more can I have asked for? Thanks so much Martin, Mika and your tough little PIKE! It was so much fun and a revelation indeed.
Like small sailing boats? Here is more:
Learning to sail on a Menhir sailboat
Quick sailing in a Beneteau First 30 R
Test sailing a Beneteau First 27 – the ex-Seascape 27